Newcastle's EPL slump gives club's Saudi bosses a tough decision to make over Howe
Saudi Arabia’s entry into the world of English soccer had been going so well.
Newcastle’s first full season following the controversial takeover by the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund in 2021 saw a recently relegation-threatened club soar, first reaching a cup final and then surpassing expectations by finishing fourth in the Premier League last May to qualify for the lucrative Champions League.
The club's recruitment appeared shrewd. The manager hired in the first weeks of the new era — Eddie Howe — was proving to be a hit. Newcastle’s passionate fans fell back in love with the team, creating a raucous atmosphere at their St. James’ Park home.
Now, a reality check.
For the club with the world’s richest owners has been struck by blow after blow in a turbulent and increasingly disappointing season.
First there was the 10-month suspension handed to its star offseason signing, Sandro Tonali, for gambling. Howe was soon hit by an extraordinary injury list that, at one stage, reached 11 members of the first-team squad.
And then there was the setback of failing to advance from the Champions League group stage, despite a statement 4-1 home win over Kylian Mbappe ’s Paris Saint-Germain, and, indeed, getting knocked out of Europe completely because of a last-place finish.
Adding to that is a slump in form that has dropped Newcastle to ninth place in the 20-team Premier League, on the back of a nine-game streak containing two wins, six losses and most recently a draw, 4-4 at home to lowly Luton on Saturday.
Don’t expect any sympathy to be heading Newcastle’s way, especially from those critics who believe the Saudi takeover shouldn’t have been allowed in the first place because of the kingdom’s human rights record.
What happens next is a hard question to answer, because it’s tough to know what the PIF is thinking and there’s no precedent to its decision-making in soccer.
However, even though those in charge of the sovereign wealth fund might have been busy lately trying to secure a deal with the PGA Tour elsewhere in its portfolio of sporting assets, they cannot have failed to notice the downturn under Howe these last couple of months.
“No amount of credit in the bank is big enough,” a downbeat Howe said after a surprising recent 3-1 home loss to Nottingham Forest, maybe hinting at the pressure he could come under if results continue to disappoint.
The general feeling is that fielding the same players again and again during the injury-hit squad’s intense run of games late last year has caught up with them. Newcastle has typically been defensively solid under Howe, yet the team has conceded 10 goals in its last three home games and another four at Liverpool on Jan. 1. Howe’s failure to buy an out-and-out defensive midfielder to protect the defense looks to be a big oversight.
Brazil midfielder Bruno Guimaraes is arguably Newcastle’s best player but he has been overworked. Howe’s two strikers, Callum Wilson and Alexander Isak, cannot stay fit.
Meanwhile, the Premier League is clamping down harder on teams’ overspending — Everton has already been deducted points, and is facing another charge along with Forest — so Newcastle cannot just keep on spending big every transfer window. Indeed, in January, Newcastle didn’t make a single signing of note, despite an injury list that contains important players such as goalkeeper Nick Pope and Brazil midfielder Joelinton.
Howe has done a fine job and is well respected, but might be running out of time considering Newcastle is 13 points off the top four. Even if England gets five spots in next season's expanded Champions League, fifth-placed Aston Villa still has 11 points more than Newcastle with 15 games remaining.
Newcastle heads to Forest on Saturday eager to avenge that surprise result at St. James' on Dec. 26 that was an indication of the team's current direction of travel down the standings.
Howe has to hope that a calmer fixture schedule, owing to Newcastle being out of Europe, allows his team to get back its intensity and work on more things on the training ground. While the absence of Joelinton — perhaps for the rest of the season — is a huge blow, the injured players are slowly coming back.
There's still time for Newcastle to secure a respectable league finish and even reach another cup final, this time in the FA Cup where it is scheduled to play second-tier Blackburn away in the last 16 on Feb. 27.
Even that might not save Howe, though, if PIF shows a ruthless side.
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